August 29, 2015
SEEC Interns Coach Middle School Robotics Team to Teamwork Prize
Feb. 27, 2014
UT Dallas students (back, from left) Elizabeth Nutting, Jessica Jennings and Chloe Truong, all interns with the Science and Engineering Education Center, coached a middle school robotics team, the Blockheads, in the FIRST Lego League regional championship, where they won the top award for teamwork.
Three UT Dallas undergraduates recently led a team of middle school students through a successful season of FIRST Lego League robotics competitions.
Chloe Truong, a biology junior; Elizabeth Nutting, a neuroscience junior; and Jessica Jennings, a software engineering junior, are all interns with UT Dallas’ Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC). The center organizes summer camps for middle and high school students, as well as training sessions for teachers. In addition, the center and the University have hosted robotics competitions for several years.
In 2013, the three SEEC interns were working in the summer camps and decided to form and coach a team of area middle school students to compete in FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics competitions. Teams typically are sponsored by individual schools, but this was the first team sponsored by UT Dallas.
Chloe Truong (left), a biology junior, coached middle school students Kunal Kapoor (back), Rohit Prasad and their Blockheads teammates.
“Our interns did a wonderful job in their first year out as coaches for the SEEC robotics team,” said Dr. Kenneth Berry, assistant director of SEEC.
Truong, Nutting and Jennings met with the eight-member team, the Blockheads, twice a week at UT Dallas throughout the fall, building a robot from a kit and conducting research on the FLL’s 2013 challenge theme: Nature’s Fury. Teams were tasked with designing, building and programming a robot that could help recovery efforts after a natural disaster. During competition, the robot would have to move and manipulate Lego game pieces at various sites on a game board, and complete tasks like delivering supplies to victims, rescuing people and pets, and removing downed tree limbs from power lines. Teams had to complete all these tasks in a 2 ½ minute match.
Kunal Kapoor, an eighth-grader from Frisco, said that it was challenging to optimize the robot’s design and complete as many missions as possible.
“I liked working with the robots and gaining knowledge about them,” Kapoor said. “Even in biomedical areas, they’re using robots in surgeries.” He added that participation on the team will “add to our resumes.”
The robot game is only one part of the competition, however. Each team also conducted research, identified a problem that could occur during a natural disaster, and proposed a solution that could help people prepare, stay safe or rebuild.
Blockheads member Kunal Kapoor showed a prototype of a wristband his team developed to help locate victims of a natural disaster.
As part of their research, the Blockheads consulted with UT Dallas geosciences professor Dr. John Geissman to better understand earthquakes, and they met with members of the campus Community Emergency Response Team. The Blockheads proposed and built a Lego version of a wristwatch-type device equipped with a GPS locater that individuals in the path of a natural disaster could wear, making it easier for rescue teams or loved ones to find them.
Rohit Prasad, who attends Rice Middle School in Plano, said that being on the robotics team “definitely helps you get a taste of what the engineering world will be like.”
Throughout the fall, the UT Dallas-sponsored team competed in qualifying rounds against other North Texas teams and earned a spot in the regional championship, which was sponsored by the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and held at the Hockaday School in early February.
At the regional contest, the Blockheads won the top award for teamwork among more than 50 of the best North Texas teams, many of which were veteran competitors.
“My favorite part has been working with the kids and fostering their interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields,” Jennings said. “It was a fun experience getting to know them and to see how their minds work."
Truong said coaching a team of eight middle school boys was trying at times, but ultimately rewarding.
“They progressed so much over the past six months, you get to know them and they become yours,” she said. “It’s the next best thing to being a teacher. They improved on their teamwork skills and communication skills.
“Plus, this gives the three of us good experience, because in the summer we teach teachers and other coaches how to run an FLL team.”